Photo by Michael Mares
[ID: A trio of dancers posed together. One, with arms held around shoulder level, is dressed in red with hints of light green to represent apple, symbolizing health. Another with both arms lifted above her head is in burgundy as vinegar, for longevity. The third, who kneels, is in velvety brown as Samanu, a pudding made from wheat grass which symbolizes pleasure. All embellished with gold accents.]
The effects of dance on the brain have been studied using Western dance forms like ballet, but not with less known forms like Persian/Iranian dance. Until now. When I was contacted by Dr. Julia F. Christensen, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics and former professional ballet dancer, I got very excited. Julia was interested in the work I was doing on codifying Persian/Iranian dance movement and wanted to collaborate on an experiment involving a Persian movement library. At first, I was intrigued by the idea of using Iranian dance as the movement form to study the effects of dance on the brain. But in the process of our experiments, I also became enthralled with the idea that transmission of cultural knowledge through the movement language specific to that culture may also affect the brain.
As dance practitioners and educators, we know intuitively that dance is beneficial for both physical and emotional health. It also makes sense to assume that emotional balance leads to better social behavior. There is a connection between our brain and our emotions, as well as between our emotions and behavior. Since dancing directly influences our emotions, it becomes a fourth component in this dance between biology and psychology.
What is Persian/Iranian dance?
The terms ‘Persian’ and ‘Iranian’ are often used synonymously and there is some confusion and much discourse around the appropriate term for this dance genre. In Iran the term “Iranian dance” is used. There are various genres within Iranian dance, including numerous dances belonging to tribes from around the country. These tribes speak their own dialect and follow their own customs. Much like the language, the dances of each region, in addition to the music and traditional attire, are distinct and part of the tribes’ identity. However, there is a common movement language that all Iranians share. This movement style carries a natural flow that is a major part of the aesthetic identity of Iranian art and culture, and is practiced both as a social activity by Iranians with no formal dance training, and as an artistic expression by contemporary dancers and choreographers.
Dance, music and food are a big part of Iranian culture. Families and friends gather often to enjoy each other’s company, prepare feasts, play both traditional and modern music, sing old and new songs, and dance in traditional and contemporary ways. These events are multigenerational, and therefore the dances are passed on from one generation to the next. Iranian dance artists often choreograph dances which are founded in and stem from these family and community dances. This dance language embodies the aesthetics of Iranian culture in such a detailed and intricate way that learning it as a dancer who has not been raised in the culture requires some analysis and introspection.
The art of Persian dance
Persian dance technique involves layers of subtle movement coordinated in very specific ways to express emotions and mannerisms that are not common in Western culture. Systematic learning of the technique is required to achieve the necessary coordination, and understanding of cultural nuances is essential for culturally contextual meaningful expression. I also believe that in order to expand one’s movement vocabulary and ways of expression, even those fully fluent in the social movement language can benefit from pedagogy and formal training.
There is no evidence of any recorded system of codified movements in Iranian dance. Nor is there any accessible archive of ancient choreographed dances and pedagogy that would be treated as an established and formal method for teaching and performing Iranian dance. There are a handful of Iranian dance artists who have developed their own formats for teaching, but most do not have a published codified system. As intuitively based as it may be for Iranians, this dance form is composed of a movement vocabulary and has the potential for codification. Dance historian Anthony Shay suggests, “The performance of this dance tradition does not derive from a formless, meaningless collection of movements, but rather forms a coherent movement system…like Persian classical music, dance is capable of being systematized, a prerequisite for the creation of an aesthetic system.”
I agree with Shay and have spent the greater part of three decades exploring, analyzing, and processing this movement language. I published my format, Shahrzad Technique, in my book, The Art of Persian Dance in 2015. A number of Iranian dance instructors inside and outside of Iran now use this book as a reference guide for teaching.
Persian dance and neuroscience
As an artist I have always been interested in creating new work, but creating a pedagogy was a new way to use my imagination. It was shortly after my book was published that I was contacted by then London-based neuroscientist Dr. Julia F. Christensen, who was working on the effects of dance on the brain. She proposed to collaborate on a dance-neuroscience project involving a movement library. Julia had worked with ballet dancers on a similar project and was interested in exploring other dance forms. I found the proposal very enticing and was excited to begin working with her and the team of researchers, some of whom were Iranian.
My part of the project began with the choreography of 120 short movement sequences, danced with a variety of emotions. These 120 sequences were later filmed with no sound/music, and my image was made into a silhouette so no facial expression could be seen. Put briefly, the experiment consisted of participants of various backgrounds watching the sequences and answering questions such as: 1) Into what category of emotion would you place each sequence? 2) How strongly is the emotion being expressed by the dancer in each sequence? and 3) How would you rate the sequences in terms of beauty?
The preparation and implementation of the experiment took many months. The analysis and resulting paper illustrates the data in several charts and diagrams and discusses the results. The paper is still under review and not yet published. This collaboration was so intriguing for all of us that we decided to continue working together on other projects.
Introducing Persian dance at the British Science Festival
We also partook in fun, thought-provoking public engagement activities in a few popular science events that triggered scientific questions, but were not formal scientific studies. One such event was The British Science Festival held in Coventry, UK in September of 2019. There, Dr. Christensen gave a lecture based on her book, Dance Is The Best Medicine, and I taught a Persian dance workshop titled, “Get Up and Dance.” An article was published based on this event, titled Seven Reasons Why You Should Dance.
We had multiple goals for this workshop. One goal was to promote the idea that dancing – in any style – is a healthy activity physically, mentally, and emotionally. Another goal was to introduce the public to a dance form and a movement language they most likely had never seen, Persian dance, with music they had never heard.
There was an initial sense of nervousness in the group, due to unfamiliarity with the movement and music. It took a little while for the participants to get over the awkwardness of feeling clumsy as they attempted to move in a whole new way. But before long we could see them let go and allow their bodies to move in this new way. I could sense that it was liberating for them.
The workshop was designed to foster a sense of community – an integral component of Iranian social and tribal dances – which helped the participants with their initial discomfort. One thing Dr. Christensen and I both noticed was that at the beginning of the class the students stood farther away from each other, but at the end, the personal space between them had shrunk, and almost all of them had smiles on their faces. I also noticed that their bodies looked more relaxed.
Another goal of the workshop was to teach about a different culture through the embodiment of its movement language, much like we learn about a culture through its verbal language. I taught specific Iranian movement vocabulary that expresses distinct cultural nuances. And I described how certain body lines and angles allude to specific social mannerisms, so the participants could understand these subtleties in Iranian culture.
Introducing Persian dance at the Max Planck Institute
The most recent experiment Dr. Christensen and I collaborated on was an 8-week study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany. This experiment consisted of 16 Iranian dance classes (two classes a week) taught to German female students with little or no dance training and no familiarity with Iranian culture. The goal of the experiment was to see whether a dance class is an effective tool for transmitting cultural knowledge, as well as improving the student’s physical and emotional health.
These classes were carefully designed to teach Iranian culture through Iranian dance technique, including showing some paintings and discussing common aesthetics between Iranian visual art and dance. There is a theme of curvilinear lines with dynamic but graceful brush strokes in Iranian paintings and calligraphy. Compositions often consist of circular patterns, smooth transitions between images, and distinct and dynamic juxtaposition of imagery. There are also geometric design elements in Persian architecture that carry similar visual motifs to the painting and calligraphy. The same dynamic nuances translate into Iranian musical compositions and rhythmic structures. All of these aesthetics and dynamics are reflected in the dance form.
The participants in this experiment were required to answer weekly questionnaires throughout the experiment. The data from this study is in the process of being analyzed.
The potential of dance to bridge cultural differences
Let us assume that the transmission of cultural knowledge through the movement language specific to that culture affects the brain. In other words, this process influences the brain’s neural pathways by introducing new ways to think and move, and affects brain function by triggering certain hormones. As evidenced by the Behavioral Brain Research study I cited at the beginning of this article, we know that the brain can regulate emotions and thus social behavior. Can we therefore deduce that understanding a different culture through the embodiment of its movement language ultimately affects our social behavior and thus our relationships? If this assumption is correct, an effective tool for improving relations between people of different cultures is through their dances!
It is exciting to have scientific evidence to corroborate our intuitive understanding of the effects of dance on our emotions and behavior. But as dance artists and educators, we experience this phenomenon through our senses every day. Connections are made between people, cultural gaps are bridged, and relationships are fortified through the language of dance. For us, these sensual experiences form our reality and our truths.
 According to a study published by Behavioral Brain Research, “…emotion regulation relies on a cognitive control system involving inhibition-related prefrontal regions to dampen activation in emotion-associated structures, such as the amygdala, insula and anterior cingulate cortex.” (Restoring Emotional Stability: Cortisol Effects on the Neural Network of Cognitive Emotion Regulation- Jentsch, Merz, and Wolf Volume 374, 18 November 2019, 111880).
 Shay, Choreophobia, 1999, 177
Dance Your Emotion Project Presentation: https://youtu.be/zXM2NpfbS0s
MPIEA experiment- 2021: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ZpUgyKGU_D39ILXvQcfxyVM80EDOYsuc/view?usp=sharing
MPIEA website: https://www.aesthetics.mpg.de/dance